The streets are paved with… fish cakes and rice cakes?
Wondrous and whimsical neon lights aren’t the only things that brighten Korean streets day or night. Squiggles of fish cake skewered on wooden sticks, spicy and enticing rice cakes that will light your mouth ablaze yet keep you coming back for more, and a miniature loaf of bread with an egg fried right inside!
Korea’s street food is truly eclectic, with some items originating in Joseon’s royal kitchens, others being brought over during the colonial period, while others still are innovations and uniquely Korean iterations of beloved Western foods.
The one thing one cannot do when they come to Korea is run out of amazing culinary items to sample, and that includes the ones will find just by walking down the street. Most of these treats can be grabbed for less than 3 dollars American or about 3-5 thousand Korean won. Stalls and pojangmacha (포장마차) which are movable food tents or the backs of trucks equipped for quick and informal dining serve these goodies up daily.
Keep an eye out (it won’t be too hard!) for these when you are out exploring during the day and need to refuel, or are hitting the town and maybe need something to ahem sober up a little bit! Get ready for a little tour of Korea’s best, most popular, and most famous street food. You may just work up an appetite by the end of this article, and we sincerely hope you do!
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Tteokbokki – 떡볶이
We begin with easily one of the most famous as well as ubiquitous of street treats, tteokbokki. Having its origins on royal menus before passing on to the common classes over time. The fancy royal version eventually grew to become Tteokgalbi (another delicious dish but unfortunately not street food per se). By 1950, as rumour has it, one mister Ma Bok Lim perfected what we know today as modern tteokbokki in Seoul’s Sindang, which today is a famous area for tteokbokki.
Tteokbokki is a dish consisting of a gochujang based sauce that is sweet, tangy, and spicy along with soft and chewy rice cakes. Tons of great variations of tteokbokki exist out there from tteokbokki that incorporates some scallions, eomuk/어목 fish cakes (more on these later!), and hard-boiled eggs for a truly sumptuous take on this spicy dish. Other versions can include ramyun noodles, cheddar cheese, rice cakes of all shapes and sizes, Vienna sausages, the list is virtually endless.
Tteokbokki can be found anywhere in Korea but Seoul’s Dongdaemun area is famous for featuring some notoriously spicy tteokbokki. Sindangdong in Seoul even has a “Tteokbokki Town” where all the restaurants claim to be the originators. Whether they are or not doesn’t matter, you are certain to enjoy a great and spicy meal at any of these joints.
For a more authentic street food experience, many pojangmacha and food stalls will specialize in these spicy rice cake dishes. Be certain to grab some if you happen to find yourself walking home after a few rounds of soju! The spiciness will do wonders for you. Courtesy of easily one of the most famous Korean street foods.
Soondae – 순대
Soondae, sometimes confusingly spelt as “sundae” which makes some folks think its ice cream, is a blood sausage dish. Having its origins during Korea’s Goryeo era and originally featuring boar rather than standard pig intestines, soondae is now a partner in crime to tteokbokki. In fact, many places that sell one will sell the other, usually as a combination. The sweet and spicy combined with salty and savoury go well together and make for excellent late-night snacking!
Soondae is usually prepared from pig and sometimes cow intestines and stuffed with all sorts of ingredients, like glass noodles along with other spices, vegetables, and herbs. Along with the blood sausage, some steamed and sliced intestines like lungs and liver may make up ones soondae dish.
In addition, soondae will be served with some salt and pepper that really amplifies the flavour. For those who may be a bit squeamish at the idea of liver, intestines, and lungs, why not order a little bit alongside a dish of tteokbokki? You may just end up finding your favourite new street dish!
Hotteok – 호떡
One of this author’s favourite Korean street foods, hotteok, is one of the most delectable treats that has the character of a home-cooked comfort food despite coming from a different continent (at least for me). With a name that means “barbarian bread” hotteok may seem like another fried fritter but it is much more than that!
But what is hotteok exactly? In short, they are little pancakes, filled with sesame seeds, cinnamon, honey, or other sweet ingredients and prepared on a griddle. Introduced by Chinese labourers to the peninsula back during colonial times, hotteok has become a real staple, especially in the winter season. Why winter one may ask? Well, hotteok are hot, like really hot, like the oils on the outside and the inside are like lava when they are fresh off the griddle! So be cautious when you bite into one of these chewy, sometimes crunchy, always amazing portable, filled pancakes.
The mix of the various herbs and spices, especially the cinnamon, brings back lots of fond memories in addition to being just plain tasty. You can find some variations of the hotteok, like green tea and other flavours. Giant hotteok can also be spotted out there! But no matter what type of hotteok you come across, it will certainly be scrumptious. Personally, one of the best Korean street foods!
Egg Bread/Gyeran-ppang – 개란빵
Another one of the best Korean street foods, we have egg-bread, or gyeran-ppang (which just means “egg-bread”)! Sweet, savoury, delicious, and a true fixture of Korean street food, egg bread had its start back in the 80s in Seoul.
Today, one can find egg bread being prepared in a special skillet sporting a ton of oval-shaped grooves. The batter for the bread is poured into each oval groove with the egg added right in there too. This is what gives it that striking appearance of the sunny-side-up egg peeking out from the top of the bread. These are great with some cheese or ham on top but are just as amazing in their original style, too.
Fish Bread/Boongoh-ppang – 붕어빵
Boongoh is the Korean word for “carp” which is what these delectable, chewy, happy little treats resemble. Boongoh-ppang, like egg bread, is also prepared on a special griddle. Albeit one with moulds that are shaped like each little individual carp. The batter is poured into the mould, and then red bean paste or choux cream, a sweet custard-like filling, is placed inside. The result? A hot, tasty little treat that will keep you swimming back for more!
Though red bean paste is the traditional filling used with choux cream usually as the second most common filling, some stalls will get creative and offer other types of fillings too. Sometimes ice cream, sometimes green tea filing, sometimes Nutella, and sometimes even pizza! Like hotteok, these goodies are often times seasonal, so winter is the time to hunt for these precious street treats.
While it may be a bummer for some street foods to be seasonal, their limited nature can add to the pleasant memories associated with enjoying them. That sense of whimsical longing for a piping hot carp-shaped bread gives way to some excitement when one feels the first chills in the air. Then, one evening while walking home from work or school one smells it first, the crisp, warm scent of the griddle. That aroma of hot batter being turned a crispy golden brown.
Next, one sees the steam, it obscures the stall which may have a few older folks, or students, or other passersby standing around it. Then, one sees the light that peers out from under the stalls’ tarp roof. And there they are! Those goodies you’ve been waiting all summer and fall for!
The best part? You can usually grab a whole bag of them for under $5 American (5-6 thousand Korean won). Just wait for them to cool off a bit! Bite into one of these fishy treats to try one of the most popular Korean street foods.
Fish cake/Eomuk – 어목
But wait, didn’t we just talk about fish cake or fish bread or fish something? Yes, well one will quickly discover that eomuk fish cake and boongoh-ppang fish bread are vastly different. Both amazing, both street foods, both often enjoyed in colder weather, both have fish in the name but from there the similarities kind of cease.
Fish cake in this context is usually a squishy, chewy, savoury, tasty treat that is boiled in seasoned and spiced broth (which they give you in a cup to drink!). The result is a really great and satisfying snack, especially if it has been skewered on a wooden stick in a wavy, squiggly fashion!
Fish “cake” is sort of an awkward translation, what these snacks are is pressed and pounded fish into a flat spongy kind of sheet rather than a cake really. All semantics aside fish cake can be found anywhere, especially at pojangmacha where they can be enjoyed alongside tteokbokki, soondae, and of course, soju!
One more thing about the name. Eomuk is the native Korean name and is becoming more commonly used. Odeng (오뎅) is the Japanese loan word and while it still gets used it can sometimes have a not so pleasant connotation when used in lieu of the native Korean word. In addition, while odeng and eomuk are certainly similar, odeng is usually prepared a little differently.
If you’d like to learn more first hand Busan is famous for its eomuk, featuring a little bit of spiciness and a whole lot of texture and flavour! Enjoy eomuk to experience one of the most famous Korean street foods.
Walnut Bread/Hodu Gwaja – 호두과자
Hailing from Cheonan, a city south of Seoul, hodu gwaja, or walnut bread is another winter street food to grab a bag of for those cold Korean winter months. Sometimes translated as “walnut cookie” these treats are really more akin to some of the other bread on our list. They are soft, chewy, addicting, and definitely a treat to enjoy regularly.
Their name comes from the shape of the bread, prepared in a special mould, as well as the batter which is prepared from wheat and walnuts. The filling? More red bean paste! Red bean paste is a versatile filling and it finds its way into lots of Korean confections. Red bean paste has a unique sweet, savoury, and umami flavour. The pastes’ texture is thick and a bit chewy with some nice creaminess. This all makes for a great filling for these walnut-shaped snacks!
Hot Dog – 핫도그
Hot dogs, and their many offshoots, in Korea, are a real art form! Most hot dogs, whether the plain dog or a fancier iteration, are served on sticks, rather than buns.
This may be due to any number of reasons. Maybe when hot dogs began to be enjoyed as street treats, probably right after or even during the Korean war, buns, and bread, in general, were still too expensive and difficult to come by. Maybe the first Korean hot dog vendors figured it’d be easier to skewer the hot dogs and serve them like eomuk. Maybe the first hot dogs were simply boiled along with eomuk. In fact, some hot dogs today are even served wrapped in eomuk.
Whatever the reasoning is, this stick variant has led to some really cool and really tasty innovations. The traditional corndog has evolved into being made with squid ink, with the hot dog sliced to look like a real squid with tentacles! Some corn dogs are light and fluffy and covered with sugar. Some are encrusted with french fries. Some corn dogs are even filled with a layer of mozzarella cheese between the hot dog and the batter so when one bites into the corn dog they are treated to a delectable layer of melted cheese.
As for sauces? Ketchup and mustard mainly. Traditional condiments for some spectacularly innovative hot dogs! Certainly one of the best Korean street foods.
The Best and Most Famous Korean Street Foods
Korean street food, like Korean cuisine in general, is wildly and excitingly diverse. These treats are some of the most famous, the most popular, and certainly some of the best Korean street foods one can find while wandering those neon-soaked streets.
You won’t have to look too hard because those handy stalls and fun pojangmacha can be spotted from Seoul to Jeju and everywhere in between. Happy hunting for some of the best, more popular, and most famous Korean street food!
About the Author:
Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m from Connecticut but I have been living, working, writing, teaching, and travelling all around the world. I have been living in Korea for about 7 years now and have travelled all across the peninsula, visiting different places, trying new foods, and meeting unique people from all walks of life. I currently live in Yangsan, Korea with my wife and daughter.